Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 upgrades the CPU and GPU options, while leaving the rest of this convertible 2-in-1 largely unchanged. In a rapidly changing and improving landscape, that stability’s a bit of a liability.
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The Surface Book 3 continues Microsoft’s five-year mission to create the “ultimate laptop,” still uniquely melding a tablet and keyboard base that can be used to create, work, and game.
But the goal is harder to achieve in 2020 than ever before. At $1,599 up to $3,400, the Surface Book 3 is pricey. Worse, it offers little improvement over a new and very strong generation of dedicated laptops, from gaming machines with Nvidia’s latest RTX hardware to consumer devices optimized for extreme battery life and connectivity. Even Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 7 provides a superior tablet experience to the Surface Book 3’s.
The Surface Book 3 is a fantastic product for the do-it-all niche it serves. It’s just that as laptops around it continue to evolve and improve, its niche continues to shrink.
This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best laptops. Go there for information on competing products and how we tested them.
Surface Book 3 prices
Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 product line will be available May 21, with two sizes to choose from: 13.5-inch and 15-inch. The Surface Book 3 will ship with Windows 10 Home, a somewhat odd choice for a laptop priced like a mobile workstation. A separate version, the Surface Book 3 for Business, will ship with Windows 10 Pro.
What follows are the prices, and then the detailed specs, of both models.
Microsoft offers a discount for education and military professionals, if you buy directly from Microsoft. Members of the Microsoft Rewards program, currently in limited beta, offers an additional 7 percent rebate.
Surface Book 3 specs and features
As you can see from the specs below, we were given the 15-inch Surface Book 3 with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti (Max-Q) GPU option for review. The Quadro RTX is the best choice if the Surface Book 3 is to be used as a mobile workstation. The RTX hardware supports real-time ray tracing (and Microsoft’s gorgeous Minecraft RTX beta). But the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti should be a excellent choice for a consumer lifestyle.
The Surface Book’s unique design continues with version 3: It folds like a traditional clamshell laptop, or the display detaches to be used as a tablet. The Surface Book 3 reclines a bit less than other laptops do, about 50 degrees off of the horizontal.
You can even mount the tablet backward in “presentation mode” for others to view your screen. Microsoft says it’s sped up detachment time to a second or two. The tablet will reattach itself if you don’t remove it, I noticed.
The Surface Book 3’s beautiful PixelSense touch display is as good as ever. It produced 496 nits of luminosity by our measurement, twice what we consider comfortable for indoor work. Both “enhanced” and “sRGB” modes are available for color fidelity in design work.
The ability to detach the display is the Surface Book 3’s most distinctive feature, but not its best. Both the 13.5-inch and the 15-inch Surface Book 3 tablets are uncomfortably awkward to hold. Because they lack the kickstand of a Surface Pro 7, they’re good for just one thing: drawing, using a Surface Pen or Surface Dial (neither included). Propping it up to watch Netflix simply isn’t as effective as with a Surface Pro or Surface Go. The Surface Book 3 really works best as a traditional clamshell PC.
The Surface Book 3’s price suggests a powerful Intel H-class Core chip might be inside, but because the CPU is mounted behind the display, the excellent Ice Lake U-series chips are used instead. The discrete GPU (if there is one) resides in the base. The Surface Book 3’s memory, however, has been substantially upgraded from the prior generation, from 1,866MHz DDR3 to the current 3,733MHz LPDDR4.
Microsoft’s claim that the Surface Book 3 includes its “fastest SSD ever” applies only to the 1TB and 2TB SSDs in the most expensive versions. Our review unit’s fast 512GB Toshiba SSD (the same used in the “Ice Lake” version of the Surface Laptop 3) sufficed for documents and a few games.
The Surface Book 3’s connectivity is frustratingly limited to a single USB-C with no Thunderbolt support, the same as in the Surface Book 2. Power and I/O are mostly handled by the two legacy Surface Connect ports, only one of which is exposed to the user while the tablet is docked. A pair of USB Type-A ports support legacy hardware.
Surface Book 3 cooling
Microsoft uses a hybrid cooling solution: heat pipes within the tablet, and fans pushing heat out of vents within the base. To Microsoft’s or Intel’s credit (or both), the Surface Book’s fans rarely turn on. When they do, they often push out little more than a gentle breeze—unless gaming or more intensive work is involved, when it heightens to a powerful whoosh. Part of that behavior may be due to the default “best battery” Windows power settings.
Has Microsoft solved the Surface Book’s power problem?
Microsoft has apparently solved its inability to supply enough power to the Surface Book 2. (Because both the native charger as well as the Surface Dock couldn’t deliver enough power, the Surface Book 2 was forced to run down the battery—even while plugged in!—to power the latest games and GPU-intensive apps.) Kicking up the Surface Book 3’s supply voltage to 127W (and launching a new high-power Surface Dock 2, which we haven’t tested) helps a lot. Gaming on the built-in display, plugged in, seems to work fine.
Unfortunately, if you’re the type of person who prefers gaming on an external display, you have meager choices. A sampling of USB-C hubs I had on hand allowed for only 30Hz output to an external 4K display—not really comfortable for gaming or productivity. The first-generation Surface Dock solves that particular display issue—it permits 4K/60 output as well as charging the Surface Book 3 if you’re not tapping the discrete GPU. But as soon as you start playing a game, the battery drains as the Surface Book 3 consumes its extra power. We’d expect the Surface Dock 2 to solve both of these issues, but it costs $260!
Surface Book 3: keyboard, audio and webcams
Although you probably don’t want to buy a $2,000 PC for the keyboard alone, I’m convinced that the Surface Book lineup offers the best of any laptop today. (Lenovo’s ThinkPad keyboards, which also have a deserved reputation for quality, are a close second.)
The key travel is a luxurious 1.55mm (around 1.25mm is more common in the industry). Each key is firm and responsive. The slight air gap afforded by the Surface Book 3’s accordion hinge allows the keys to lie flush with the keyboard deck, versus sinking them into a slight depression as other laptops do. Both combine to offer the tactile illusion that your fingers are typing on a deeper keyboard.
Microsoft still has the odd habit of changing up its function keys among its different Surface products. The keyboard backlight key is part of the F7 key on the Surface Pro lineup and F1 on the Surface Book. (You may want to use the lowest of the three backlighting settings, as the illumination is quite strong.)
Microsoft’s glassy Precision trackpad is clickable almost to the top. The trackpad is spacious and affords generous palm rests on the corners of the Surface Book 3.
The audio experience differs along with the Surface Book 3 design. Laptops usually embed the speakers below the keyboard, so the sound bounces and resonates outward. Here, the speakers are mounted behind the display, so the sound is broadcast directly at your face.
Overall, the Surface Book 3’s audio experience is typical. The volume maximum is reasonable. The high end mashes together and becomes somewhat tinny. The bass is minimal. While the speakers are Dolby Atmos-enabled, there are apparently no controls provided to adjust the audio balance, but I was able to download the Dolby Access app from the Microsoft Store.
Microsoft now includes a pair of far-field mics, probably more important for videoconferencing than for activating Cortana. The Surface Book 3 worked fine during my Zoom or Teams calls, so you should be able to set aside your headphones if you have access to a quiet workspace.
Microsoft includes its excellent webcams, front and rear, on the Surface Book 3. We experienced good clarity, color, and detail on the user-facing camera. (There’s no sliding privacy shutter, though; here’s why.) The rear camera is quite good, though it’s a bit weird that it’s offset into the corner.
There’s another note of interest: the new Surface Book 3 also includes the new Chromium-based Edge browser. Microsoft is currently replacing the old “legacy” Edge for the new version on all Windows 10 PCs via Windows Update.
How much performance comes for the price? Keep reading for benchmark results.
Surface Book 3: Productivity performance
You should expect Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 to perform admirably as a productivity machine, where its keyboard and display will really shine. In general, the Surface Book performed up to our expectations.
One odd bug we noticed was in playing back 4K videos at 60Hz over YouTube. (Typically, most video is encoded at 1080p at 30Hz. A 4K/60 video demands more bandwidth.) We loaded up a 4K/60 video of a walking tour of New York City’s Times Square, with an ad blocker enabled and the video buffered. While the comparison Surface Pro 7 dropped frames intermittently (174 out of 10,037), the Surface Book 3 (with 32GB of memory and a discrete GPU) dropped 602 frames out of 10,019—a constant drip-drip of about two frames dropped per every 30. We have queried Microsoft.
In our first series of benchmarks, we compare the Surface Book 3 against our stable of productivity notebooks, some of which would also work for content creation and gaming. HP’s Spectre x360 15 falls nicely into that category, though unfortunately we’ve seen only the older 2019 model. Other laptops that do well here are the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390, the larger Dell XPS 15 7390, and the Acer Swift 3 SF314-42-R9YN. We’ve saved gaming-specific tests for a second round of benchmarks, below.
We use PCMark 8’s Work tests to determine how a laptop will do with general office apps, and the additional Creative test to assess performance in photo editing, video manipulation, and the like. We’ve added the Microsoft Surface Book 2 (shown in orange) for comparison. The Work test is pretty easy for high-end laptops, so the differences aren’t as profound as you might expect.
There’s a slightly sharper jump between the Surface Book 2 and Surface Book 3 in the Creative test, though it still uses the integrated GPU, which dampens the gaming portion of the scores. The use of IGP also explains why the Surface Laptop 3 outperforms the Book 3, as it has fewer pixels to push. We’ll see results for the discrete GPU in the gaming tests.
Maxon’s Cinebench stresses the entire system, specifically the CPU and all of its threads. It’s no surprise to see performance comparable to the Surface Laptop 3, because the CPU is the same.
Note that the Surface Book 3’s default Windows’ power/performance setting is “best battery life,” which typically means lower performance. Though we also ran tests at higher performance settings, we didn’t see meaningful differences in most tests except this one. The higher performance setting is represented by an outlined red bar.
It’s a slightly different story with our HandBrake test. This open-source tool stresses the system over a prolonged period, testing CPU stamina as well as thermal limits while transcoding a feature-length Hollywood film for an Android tablet.
We take a harder look at the discrete GPU using UL’s 3DMark test, which provides several benchmarks, shown in the following charts. First up is Sky Diver, against other productivity machines, where only the tricked-out Dell XPS 15 surpasses the Surface Book 3.
Surface Book 3: Gaming tests
We’ve used some of 3DMark’s more powerful graphics benchmarks to compare it to several gaming PCs, from boutique builders to more mainstream names. The gist: While the Surface Book 3 can be used for gaming, dedicated gaming machines generally outperform it. Keep in mind that those machines use Nvidia GeForce GTX and RTX hardware that is much more powerful than the GeForce GTX 1660Ti (Max-Q) in the Surface Book 3. Gaming laptops can also take advantage of the gaming-centric Core chips from Intel’s “H” family, including the mighty Core i9.
First up, the Sky Diver benchmark again. While the Surface Book 3 posted high marks against productivity laptops, it falls to the bottom when pitted against gaming machines.
The 3DMark Fire Strike, Fire Strike Extreme and Fire Strike Ultra are older benchmarks designed to test Direct 11 performance on gaming PCs, at progressively higher resolutions and visual quality. We’ve compiled them all in one chart. The Surface Book 3 gets a passing grade here.
The pattern continued in the 3DMark Time Spy benchmark, optimized for DirectX 12 performance on gaming PCs. The Surface Book 3 leads the back of the pack, behind all gaming laptops but ahead of a few other high-end productivity laptops.
We also tested real-world gaming performance. Both games—Rise of the Tomb Raider and Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor—are a couple of years old, accurately pinpointing that the Surface Book 3 can serve as a gaming laptop, but with limitations.
Anecdotally, we ran PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds at 1080p (Ultra graphical settings) for 45 minutes or so, with 50 to 58 frames per second as measured by Windows’ Xbox Game Bar.
Bottom line, don’t buy the Surface Book 3 just for gaming, as there are gaming-specific laptops to be had (like the $1,699 MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 9SD) for far less.
Surface Book 3 battery life
Our final test is battery life, a traditional strength of the Surface Book line. With a smaller 22Wh battery in the tablet and a larger 59Wh battery in the base, this dual setup once outstripped all other comers. Now, you have a number of single-battery laptops that surpass it, and that doesn’t include devices that use Qualcomm’s power-efficient Snapdragon processor. Still, almost 12 hours of battery is great, as shown by our standard video rundown test. The Surface Book 3 charged to 53 percent in an hour’s time.
Conclusion: A strong niche player
Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 attempts to be all things for all people: the PC you create with during the day, and the laptop you relax with at night. Honestly, Microsoft’s vision of a big, beautiful workstation/tablet/gaming PC/productivity machine has always deeply resonated with me. It’s hard to find a gaming PC with such an excellent keyboard, or a productivity laptop with such a powerful GPU inside. All of this is elegantly wrapped, with the Surface bow on top. This is Microsoft’s premier PC experience.
And yet, the goal of the “ultimate laptop” seems more out of reach than ever. If you want a dedicated productivity machine, you can do better. If you want a dedicated gaming laptop, you can do better. If you want a dedicated tablet, you can do better. Why Microsoft hasn’t built in a kickstand, making it a full-fledged tablet? Why exclude GeForce RTX hardware, disappointing the gaming community? Has Microsoft overcome its legacy of hardware bugs?
What Microsoft has to realize is that specialized, competing devices now achieve more in productivity, gaming, power efficiency, and price than one device can ever accomplish. Microsoft’s do-it-all Surface Book 3 fills its own unique niche. But it is still a niche.